The news that At The Movies has been cancelled — a show that began its life under the title Sneak Previews on PBS in 1978 — is certainly the end of an era in the TV presentation of reviewing and criticism. And it’s sadly ironic that the show should be snuffed just as it attained two hosts, A. O. Scott and Michael Phillips, who are probably the most rigorous film critics the franchise ever had. (It bears noting that on his Chicago Sun-Times blog, Ebert has already announced he’ll proceed with plans for “a new movie review program on television.)
Two things, quickly. First: There will be a lot of wailing about At The Movies disappearing, but such protestations are like the ones that abounded when Conan O’Brien was ousted from The Tonight Show — i.e., it’s likely that few of the people who now regret the passing of At The Movies are actually watching it every week these days. Second: We shouldn’t forget that the show’s original hosts, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, were not always the lionized figures they are today.
When the duelling Chicago newspaper critics debuted their show on PBS, there was a lot of solemn squawking within the halls of criticism that Siskel and Ebert’s trademarked thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach was debasing, over-simplifying, the analysis of movies. On one level, that disapproval was deserved: Using a few peppery paragraphs of spoken words and a final see-it, don’t-see-it standard doesn’t allow for much subtlety, context, or historical perspective. Ebert himself was always aware of this. A Philadelphia Inquirer film critic, Carrie Rickey, has told the story that, after seeing her “pontificate on television, [Ebert told her,] ‘Honey, remember on TV it’s OK to put back in all the clichés you edit out in your writing.”
Exactly. TV requires brevity and wit usually gets edited out. Of course, it can’t be all cliches, which is what the most dismal version of At The Movies, the one co-hosted by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, had in abundance. The Bens were brought in for that most cynical and deluded of TV-production reasons — they were younger than previous hosts, therefore they’d attract the youth demo!
This was a fundamental misunderstanding of Siskel and Ebert’s original appeal, which was, as I wrote in EW in 2000, “like that other halcyon PBS hero, chef Julia Child, Ebert and Siskel were unusual but natural TV personalities. Neither was conventionally handsome (a polite way of saying Ebert often looked as if he had to be shoehorned into his movie-theater seat, while the chrome-domed Siskel resembled an antic accountant), but their genuine Chicago-newspaper competitiveness came through the screen.”
I always thought that if listening to Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott inspired anyone to start reading their more evocative works in print, or the work of great films critics such as Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, or Andrew Sarris, to name just three, then the TV movie review show was a force for good.
The fact is, At The Movies in its current syndicated version had been shunted off to lousy time periods in many markets around the country. The energetic, articulate discussions between Scott and Phillips was a rare thing to see at a time when Rotten Tomatoes-style aggregation of reviews reduces everything to my-opinion-is-as-valid-as-yours; the latest hosts faced hurdles that Siskel and Ebert never encountered. At a time when space for serious reviews, not just of movies but also TV, music, and books, is shrinking nearly everywhere, the cancellation of At The Movies is, yes, bad for criticism, but also, sadly, inevitable.